Mother Goose in pointe shoes

The Portland Ballet's annual holiday show finds the charm in John Clifford's fairy-tale choreography

Gentle, calm, basically peaceful (except when danger is present in Maurice Ravel’s gorgeous music and the narrative), John Clifford’s choreographic rendering of Mother Goose contains many charms. As performed by the young dancers of The Portland Ballet at the Sunday matinee in the company’s annual Thanksgiving weekend showcase at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall, it delivers a subtle, reassuring message at a time when we are otherwise bombarded by marketers in celebration of the miracle of the Hannukah lights and the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Photo courtesy The Portland Ballet

Photo courtesy The Portland Ballet

Ravel’s best-known scores for ballet are Bolero and La Valse. But the first one he did, in 1912, was Ma Mère l’oye (Mother Goose), originally for piano, then orchestrated for a production at the Theȃtre des Arts in Paris. The stories told in this ballet, in broad, brief choreographic strokes  are Jules Perrault’s versions of Sleeping Beauty,  Beauty and the Beast,  Tom Thumb (aka Hop ‘o My Thumb), and The Princess of the Pagodas. The action is framed as a young girl’s dream, and transitions are made with Mother Goose, toy goose tucked under her arm, summoning the characters.

The curtain rises on one of the loveliest sets I’ve ever seen, designed by Portland artist Liliya Drubetskaya. The young dreamer, danced on Sunday afternoon by Sophia Dahlstrom, is seated in an armchair, reading a large book. The armchair faces a large window overlooking a lush garden—this is not a winter’s tale. The child falls asleep, the chair is pulled offstage, and Sleeping Beauty begins with a group of coltish courtiers playing badminton and the extremely gifted Medea Cullumbine-Robertson deploying her pointes as Aurora.  The music darkens, the lights (designed by Michael Mazzola) do as well, Aurora has a close encounter with the wicked fairy’s spindle, and is deposited on an elaborate bed.

Next up is a different Beauty, the dark-haired Kerridwyn Schanck, dancing an eloquent pas de deux with guest artist Josh Murry, a member of BodyVox, who also reprised the role of Gerard, the desperate shopkeeper in The Fantastic Toyshop, which closed the program. Ravel’s music for Beauty and the Beast is particularly lovely, emotionally and rhythmically complex; and the playing throughout Mother Goose of the PSU Orchestra, under the baton of Ken Selden, was as heartfelt and skillful as the dancing.

Lights and slide projections then take our dreamer and the audience to a dense forest, with a corps de ballet of cleverly costumed trees. Generally speaking it’s the wind that choreographs trees, but the kids in this training company did their charming best. Emily Rapp, swooping down in a canary-yellow wig and pointe shoes on the bread crumbs that little Thumb had dropped in order to find his way home again, thoroughly inhabited the greedy bird’s character and displayed fine technique.

Given my dislike of the artificial cuteness of the Chinese divertissement in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, I dreaded the concluding Princess of the Pagodas. But Clifford is to be commended for at no time in this ballet descending into what the British call twee. The corps of red-clad Chinese servants does some acrobatics; and Nick Jurica, as the snake, did lose his balance finishing his pirouettes à la seconde. But more experienced dancers than he have done that. And Charlotte Logeais, who has beautiful legs and feet and increasingly fine-tuned technique, made a regal princess–and a fiercely kind Blue Fairy in Toyshop.

Mother Goose ends with the dreamer reunited with her parents, costumed ’50s style (no jeans for Mom in this ballet; she’s wearing a dress, and Dad is in slacks and shirt). In a reassuring show of togetherness, the curtain goes down on them reading Mother Goose, the book.  The gifted Mary Muhlbach was responsible for these costumes, and with Jane Staugas Bray, for Toyshop‘s as well.

The Portland Ballet has been performing Clifford’s Toyshop for about a decade, and the tale of an impoverished shopkeeper and his longsuffering wife, the accidentally locked-in children and the toys that come to life, contains many roles that offer opportunities for ballet students at all levels to display their dancing and acting skills. On Sunday, it was 10-year-old Andrew Davis–son of The Portland Ballet’s Jason Davis, ballet master and school principal, and the youngest Pinocchio I’ve seen–who stole the show. His joy in being on stage was palpable, his comic timing impeccable. I missed Alexandrous Ballard doing the Cossack dance, and the Giselle doll’s over-the-top makeup distracted the viewer from Delphine Chang’s perfectly good display of Romantic technique, but Lauren Grover as the Soldier Girl danced with considerable flair and polish. And the PSU Orchestra played well the Rossini-Respighi score that accompanies this Ballet Russes chestnut.

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